PARIS, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Talks on the final status of Serbia's breakaway Kosovo province are likely to begin later this year, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Monday.
The United Nations has run the majority-Albanian province, although it is legally part of Serbia, since NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to compel the withdrawal of Serb forces accused of using indiscriminate violence to fight an ethnic Albanian insurgency.
The U.N. now has to decide whether Kosovo has made enough progress on standards of democracy, minority rights and security for the start of "final status" talks, which Albanians hope will bring formal independence.
Solana gave no indication what was in a report being drawn up by U.N. special envoy Kai Eide that could give the green light for talks to start, but he was clearly optimistic.
"We can expect, on the basis of Kai Eide's review of standards, that negotiations will begin later this year," Solana told a conference in Paris.
"To say this will be a delicate process is an understatement. Not only do Belgrade and Pristina hold diametrically opposing views. Both also lack a stable political leadership, able to take tough decisions."
Eide is due to make a recommendation to Secretary-General Kofi Annan next month on whether to launch status talks or postpone the process.
Kosovo's U.N. governor Soren Jessen-Petersen was quoted last week as saying the status talks would likely win approval because, while standards had not yet been fully met, the current "holding operation" was not sustainable.
Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority wants independence while Serbia wants to maintain sovereignty but give the province wide autonomy.
Solana said the Balkans was a vital area of EU foreign policy and that 2006 will be a crucial year for the region.
"The importance of continued EU engagement cannot be overstated. More than any other region in the world, this is a European responsibility. Simply put, we cannot afford to fail," he said.